Survivor, the chess game of reality TV, is back, and its cast is playing checkers

There is no confusing Survivor with Big Brother. The transition from the premiere of Survivor Philippines to CBS’ summer series was jarring, from the lack of high definition to, well, ever single other thing. And I welcome Survivor back with open arms as I kick Big Brother out the door.

Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling as I watched Survivor that the two were overlapping, largely because the group of castaways did not come off as particularly bright or capable, physically or socially. For example, they did terrible body painting, which looked like the work of third graders wearing blindfolds, and one person wanted to name her alliance.

It started at the marooning, when incompetence abounded, and one tribe flipped their raft into the water, and we watched (a gorgeous shot of) fruit drifting to the bottom of the ocean. Also, let’s not even discuss the most disturbing image of the night: the white chicken in the cage that slipped into the water, splashing around until it went under water and the editors cut away. I’m fine with them cutting its head off and/or eating it; drowning it due to their incompetence, however, is unacceptable.

Their interaction, as a whole, came off as not very strategic or social, just there. That’s not to say there weren’t great stand-out moments, such as Malcolm starting a fire from nothing in minutes, and then basically skillfully deferring to Russell. But between the three tribes, I don’t quite have a handle on much of anything yet besides the way they don’t quite feel like a Survivor cast yet.

Some of my feelings toward this new group may be because we had a 90-minute premiere, and to fill that extra time, we had a lot more camp footage, likely content that would have been otherwise cut.

Despite that, there were people who remain enigmas and never spoke a single word; I was convinced Jonathan Penner’s tribe had two very similar-looking lesbians until the lesbian wearing red pants took off his shirt and was revealed to be male, not that there’s anything wrong with not being a lesbian.

Speaking of not speaking, Lisa was dead-set on protecting her obvious identity–she still looks just like Blair!–and isolated herself from the tribe, so now the kids think she’s the wacky old lady. I’m not sure Skupin’s plan of having her reveal her celebrity so they’d be star-truck would work, but I also don’t think she has anything to worry about, considering a person who’s played Survivor before is a more likely target than a former celebrity.

Returnees haven’t always been wiser upon their return to the game, but here we have three type-A men who are dead-set on being leaders, even when they say they aren’t. Maybe that’s the only way to go when you’re a player elevated into a high-profile position.

Michael Skupin’s return is the most interesting to me, in part because Jonathan Penner has played twice before, and Russell Swan was on the show relatively recently. As Skupin observed, the game has changed significantly in 11 years, and he was shocked by the alliances that formed–and included him–so fast. I’m interested to see how he adapts.

Instead, he’s probably just going to bleed to death, because he injured himself repeatedly–so many times that the editors turned it into a funny little montage.

I liked Russell Swan so much when I first interviewed him, and thought he had a lot of potential between his intelligence and knowledge of the game. But that hasn’t manifested as strong game play yet. Last night, he came into the game insisting there would be “no leaders here, we’re all a team,” and then bossed everyone around to the point that they were making fun of him and, later, perhaps losing the challenge because of his failed leadership.

Russell did acknowledge his own stupidity, calling himself a “dictator” and saying, “today, I kinda blew it” with impressive self-awareness. I was somewhat surprised they didn’t vote him out, except he has strength and Zane does not, nearly dropping dead after, you know, running.

More significantly, I think, Zane stood out in the wrong way, coming on too strong, aligning with every single person in various configurations. And his “vote me off, but not really” strategy made little sense. But that’s how he plays chess: with checkers. “I’m playing the chess the best way I know how,” he told us, “and hopefully, I’m gonna king me.” There were also Hantz echoes as he said, “You ain’t never seen a move like this in Survivor history.”

Actually, yes we have: it’s called the walk of shame.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.